Quick Post: Solutions to Grinding

Grinding!

Grinding!

Not a lot of time this early morning, but I thought I’d take a minute to talk about one of the biggest problems in gaming ever since ‘leveling’ became common place: Grinding.

Grinding is easy to define; it’s the repetition of a mundane task for minimal (but guaranteed) gains, at usually little or  no risk. Grinding essentially started from CRPGs where some battles would be a slightly jump in difficulty beyond what players were otherwise experiencing, requiring them to spend more time killing easier enemies in order to rise to that challenge. Of course, RPGs aren’t the only guilty parties; I can remember spending time grinding in old Mega Man games, hunting for free lives or health.

The reason it’s a problem should be immediately obvious: it’s boring as hell. While it’s not always required in the games where it’s prevalent, it usually becomes common because it’s advantageous. As designers, we shouldn’t be encouraging our players to bore themselves (that seems counter productive to me), so what can we do?

Really, this boils down to two options: Take away the advantage, or add in fun.

Taking away the advantage is normally the first option that designers attempt when they’re trying to stifle grinding. It’s an easy solution too. All you have to do is identify the advantage players get from grinding and remove it, or otherwise make it unfavorable. In the most common case, players grind in games to gain money or experience in the game. There’s two directions we can take to addressing these things.

The most common approach is to slowly remove the advantage. Players kill easy monsters to earn cash or experience. One method I’ve seen used is to reduce the reward received each time the player kills the same creature over again. In one MUD, a queue is formed that fills up with the names of monsters the player has killed, and the more times the monster appears in the queue, the less you get from them. The only way to clear it is to kill other monsters. This is an easy solution, but may just lead to players juggling their monsters to keep their queues relatively clear. Another choice is to drastically curtail the benefits of fighting anything below your level, which can reduce grinding, but generally doesn’t defeat it.

The other option here (by taking away the advantage) is to identify what people are grinding for and remove or adjust it. This requires a more drastic evaluation of the game’s design however. If players are fighting for money and experience, then that means they’re buying things and need to be tougher. Given the normal model, they’re buying one-shots (healing items, stat boosters, etc) and equipment — so what if one-shot items were made less appealing (make them addictive, or make their effectiveness decline over time, or add a hazard to their use), what if equipment was made prevalent but non-universal? (Equipment is cheap and easy to get, but varying types aren’t always appropriate — no best armor, etc.)

The experience problem is harder to solve, as most players want to reach a high, or maximum, level. Changing this element would effectively completely change the nature of your game.

Which brings us to the next option — add fun. Grinding is boring, but if it’s a necessary evil, why not make it an entertaining one? In regards to money, you could add jobs for the players to do. Puzzle Pirates (like I mentioned the other day) does a good job by making everything you can do in to a puzzle game — why not making crafting or working something similar? Players won’t mind spending hours playing a Tetris minigame; many of them will do it already. (The key here is to offer a few choices so they don’t feel forced to do it.)

Still want to fight monsters? Well, why not make the fights more engaging? There are plenty of turn-based games that have really engaging mechanics, and real time games don’t have to be any different. In your average MMO, combat is based around the idea of recharging meters; players have abilities they can use only occasionally either based on cool-down, power-consumption (like mana), or both. Generally the flow of combat is automatic unless the player opts to do something else. (Since this is the bulk of the majority of MMOs, it’s baffling why they haven’t spent more time defining their game system to make it interesting.) Why not remove the automatic methods? Or perhaps reward the player for exceptional performance (and thus encouraging them to do every battle really well)? You could make it so that every enemy is potentially lethal instead, and penalize players for poor performance.

The options in the ‘add fun’ collumn or perhaps a bit more limitless. But I think ideally, your core game mechanic should be a game unto itself — if that’s fighting ala RPGs, you should try to make sure that each and every fight is fun.

This makes me think… I wonder if anyone argues in the defense of grinding?

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